A MIDI Keyboard is a type of MIDI Controller that is used to control your DAW (music program) through transport buttons or playing virtual instruments.
If you’re wondering what is a MIDI Keyboard, this article will teach you that, as well as what to look for in a MIDI Keyboard for FL Studio (or any music program).
View my MIDI Keyboard reviews.
Or watch more videos in this Music Studio Reassemble Series.
MIDI Keyboard Basic Features
A MIDI Keyboard is what we use to control our music program in various ways from playing and stopping our music, to enabling record, or going forward and back in the song through its transport buttons.
But what most people know a MIDI Keyboard for is to control Virtual Instruments in your music program to connect your piano to your computer to play digital instruments.
The basic features of a MIDI Keyboard offer:
- Transport buttons (Play, Stop, Record, Forward, and Back).. I always recommend you also get the LOOP button for a total of 6 Transport Buttons
- Piano Keys to Play Digital Instruments (VSTi)
- Octave Buttons to Access All Piano Notes
- Mod Wheel & Pitch Wheel
Transport Buttons on a MIDI Keyboard
The transport buttons are what control your DAW (music program).
It’s important to make sure your transport buttons work properly in your music program to learn the fast workflow of making beats.
Here’s how the transport buttons usually work in a DAW (at least in FL Studio, which my website is focused on):
- PLAY – Plays Song (if song is playing pauses song)
- STOP – Stops Song (pressing twice resets song)
- RECORD – Enables or Disables recording of MIDI Notes
- FORWARD – Goes forward 1 Bar in the Playlist
- BACK – Goes back 1 Bar in the Playlist
- LOOP – Switches Song/Pattern Mode in FL Studio
Sometimes these transport buttons may not perform as you think in your music pgoram, but thankfully FL Studio has introduced MIDI Scripting, allowing any MIDI Controller to work with custom python code.
Piano Keys on a MIDI Keyboard
The piano keys on a MIDI Keyboard or digital piano are often referred to as the keybed.
Understand that pretty much every MIDI Keyboard’s keybed is cheap (piano key quality), unless you go for the 88-Key Hammer-Action MIDI Keyboards, which usually cost a minimum of $1,000, and are HUGE in size.
With that said, it’s most important to understand the purpose of a MIDI Keyboard in music production.
A MIDI Keyboard is meant to make playing melodies easy with your keyboard connected to your computer with a USB cable.
Since a MIDI Keyboard itself has NO SOUNDS INSIDE, you must understand that if you purchase a $100 or $1,000 MIDI Keyboard, you don’t get “better sounds”, and it won’t make you a “better beatmaker”.
A MIDI Keyboard controls our Virtual Instruments inside our computer, so ANY MIDI Keyboard (MIDI Controller) will allow you to trigger these notes and have control with velocity (how loud a note plays) for a more human sound.
So then why are there expensive MIDI Keyboards?
There’s two main reasons..
- Better Build Quality
- Marketing of Companies
Better Build Quality in MIDI Keyboards
A better quality MIDI Keyboard is usually more expensive. It might be of stronger plastic, better piano key quality, or start introducing more expensive components like metal knobs and sliders for a better feeling and often more durable.
Marketing of MIDI Keyboards by Companies
Marketing behind MIDI Keyboards is at an all time high, where customers are manipulated into thinking the more expensive MIDI Keyboards must be better, or give you more control, but this most often is not true.
There is a sweet spot in terms of price to performance with a MIDI Keyboard, but since a MIDI Keyboard has no sounds in it, just remember that a cheap MIDI Keyboard to an Expensive MIDI Keyboard will give you the same experience of playing your sounds inside your computer.
Also be cautious of included bonuses of free software and VSTs included with your purchase. Most of the time these add little value, and what we call as “perceived value”.
What’s the best kind of MIDI Keyboard?
I personally like a MIDI Keyboard that does not require much software to run.. maybe just a basic driver to get up and running.
Nowadays some companies are forcing you to install a lot of their bloat software, and if you don’t, they restrict access to some of their MIDI Keyboard features.. (not cool at all!)
At the time of writing, I’m personally using the M-Audio Oxygen Pro MIDI Keyboard Review.
Octave Buttons on a MIDI Keyboard
The most common MIDI Keyboard sizes are 25-Key, 49-Key, 61-Key, and 88-Key. (Recently some companies have starting making 32-Key models).
I personally use and recommend a 49-Key MIDI Keyboard, which is often more affordable, and fits great on your desk.
But you may question how do you play more notes on a MIDI Keyboard that only has 49-Keys, for example?
Each MIDI Keyboard has Octave Buttons allowing you to jump up and octave, or jump down an octave.
These octave buttons gives you access to the full frequency range of your piano notes when you go to record your MIDI Notes in your music program.
Many producers like 61-Key MIDI Keyboards, but as mentioned, I suggest Semi-Weighted 49-Key Models (which we’ll talk a little below).
Pitch Wheel & Mod Wheel on MIDI Keyboards
Almost every MIDI Keyboard has a pitch wheel and mod wheel.
For myself personally while making beats, I do not use a pitch or mod wheel, but I’ll explain what they do.
What’s a Pitch Wheel for?
A pitch wheel can be used to pitch bend your notes.
This is most popularly used for leads in a song where the melody can bend a single note up and down in pitch based on how much the pitch wheel is moved up or down.
A pitch wheel will always have a spring back feature, allowing you to push and let go, which will quickly snap back to normal pitch. This is important so your notes are in pitch when you intend them to be.
If I were to do pitch bending, I would do this within my music program with slide notes.
What’s a Mod Wheel for?
A Mod Wheel is used to tweak your sound based on the Mod Wheel’s position.
Many times a Virtual Instrument patch may automatically set up the Mod Wheel to control a filter to open and close on a sound to make it brighter or duller.
When you get into more advanced VSTi’s, you can start mapping multiple parameters to this Mod Wheel to get really creative sounds. You can even record this Mod Wheel with automation in a song to open and close it at different times of the song to add a lot of life to your song’s arrangement.
So in short, a Mod Wheel is a custom slider, that doesn’t have spring back, that can be setup to almost any parameter you want, if your virtual instrument allows for it, which you can use to customize a sound at any time you’d like.. whether that’s in a live scenario, or if you want to record a Mod Wheel’s automation through a song.
Advanced MIDI Keyboard Features
Advanced features start entering the more expensive MIDI Keyboards, which many of these features are unnecessary, and add to the cost (which the MIDI Keyboard marketing teams love to try and tell you that you need..)
Many of these advanced features are actually harming the music production industry’s skill level, where they try to make “music making easy for everyone”, but the reality is, making beats is hard, and it takes a lot of time and skill to acquire of your years..
Anyways, these advanced MIDI Keyboard features (which companies charge you for their R&D [research and development]), are things like:
- Auto-Chord Mode
- Arpeggio Mode
- Connecting to that Company’s VST Environment
- Drum Pads
- Knobs and Slider (worth the money)
- Quality Piano Keys (Semi-Weighted & Hammer-Action)
I won’t go into detail on these points, but I will on the Knobs and Sliders.
Auto-Chord Mode – is a feature on more advanced MIDI Keyboards that allows you to press 1 note to play a chord. You can change a key and scale for your song.. I don’t like this because it’s really important you learn piano as a producer.
Arpeggio Mode – is a feature where you can hold down two or more notes to create powerful melodies. Arpeggios are very powerful, and most DAWs have their own built-in Arpeggio feature. Most often the hardware arpeggio built into a MIDI Keyboard conflicts with your DAW, at least from my experience.
I would rather companies focus on quality piano keys than these other features.
Aftertouch – is actually pretty cool, but I haven’t had any real use for it over my years. Aftertouch is once you press and hold a key down, if you press just a little harder, it will activate Aftertouch on that particular note. You can then link this to a parameter on a VST to manipulate a sound when aftertouch is engaged. (Can definitely be useful, if your DAW supports it!)
A Company’s VST Eco-System – Be cautious when a company has direct hardware connection to their VSTs. This is very powerful for workflow and enjoyment, but just understand, you are entering that company’s “eco-system”. If you decide to get a new MIDI Keyboard later-on, you may not get that same experience later on.. I usually like to have a MIDI Keyboard as just a basic MIDI Controller, then use a handful of high-quality VSTs for the easiest file management, cost savings, and workflow as a producer.
Drum Pads on a MIDI Keyboard
Drum Pads on a MIDI Keyboard are a little gimmicky..
If you are brand-new, you will think they are necessary, and must be useful if a MIDI Keyboard includes them? And they must be different than the piano keys somehow?
This is why it’s important to understand what a MIDI Keyboard is!
A MIDI Keyboard is a type of MIDI Controller.
So what’s MIDI?
MIDI is a protocol (a coding language) that is often used in the audio world in our music programs (as well as advanced concert lighting systems!)
A MIDI Keyboard manufacturer will write the code to support MIDI so their device is hardware compliant with all music programs at a basic level.
When you press a piano note on your MIDI Keyboard, it triggers a number, like 60 for example. This number 60 is designated as middle C for example, which will play that note on a virtual instrument.
We can also set up the drum pads to trigger a MIDI Note number, like 60, so both a key and a drum pad could technically both play MIDI Note 60 (Middle C).
So what’s the difference between a piano key and a drum pad?
It’s just how it feels.
A piano key is a bit harder feeling, but you still get a great workflow.. and a drum pad is a little softer allowing for some bounce back when you finger drum.
Most producers think MIDI Keyboard drum pads are poor quality.. and prefer to purchase a dedicated MIDI Drum Pad Controller.
So this drum pad is an extra cost onto your MIDI Keyboard.
Thankfully FL Studio has introduced MIDI Scripting, because I set up my drum pads to control FL Studio in a unique way for a fast workflow.
Knobs and Sliders on a MIDI Keyboard
Knobs and Sliders on a MIDI Keyboard are not 100% necessary, but if I didn’t have them, I would miss them.
Affordable MIDI Keyboards may have sliders, but not knobs.. or they may have knobs, and not sliders. Additionally, they may be made of plastic components, which are often much cheaper quality.
More expensive MIDI Keyboards will often give both knobs and sliders, and the build-quality will usually be better.. sometimes even offering metal knobs and sliders (on way more expensive models).
What are knobs and sliders used for on a MIDI Keyboard?
We can map multiple knob in FL Studio to VSTs to control parameters.
A parameter would be a slider or switch on that particular software, like when doing sound design, we have ADSR.. so we could control Attack with a Knob, Decay with a Knob, and so forth..
Essentially, we can link a hardware knob to control a software knob.
When it comes to knobs and sliders, there’s different types as well..
Absolute knobs are a little annoying because they have a fixed beginning and end.. endless encoders are better on a MIDI Keyboard because we can pick up at any point, without having a fixed beginning and end.
Quality Piano Keys on a MIDI Keyboard
MIDI Keyboard piano keys are often very cheap feeling, especially on affordable models.
These piano keys (referred to as a keybed) are typically classified as:
- Synth Keys (very cheap feeling)
- Semi-Weighted (a little better than cheap keys.. just a little heavier and better feeling)
- Hammer-Action (like a real piano)
Most commercial MIDI Keyboard’s are semi-weighted once you reach the 61-Key models.. it’s pretty rare for companies to offer semi-weighted piano keys in a 49-Key model.
If you go for a 88-Key MIDI Keyboard, you usually get Hammer-Action Grade, which is supposed to be like playing on a real piano. (I haven’t had the luxury of playing one of these yet, so I cannot compare)..
At the end of the day, playing on a real piano gives the best experience for practicing, but when making beats, a 49-Key Semi-Weighted MIDI Keyboard is what I recommend to students of my platform.
You can view all my MIDI Keyboard reviews.
Recap: What is a MIDI Keyboard?
A MIDI Keyboard for music production is a type of MIDI Controller that we use to control our DAW’s transport buttons (play, stop, record, etc..), play our virtual instruments, as well as control VST parameters by linking hardware knobs and sliders to the software.
A bad MIDI Keyboard can really give you a horrible experience in your music production learning.
It’s important you buy a good MIDI Keyboard, that works well with your DAW, as just because a MIDI Keyboard is well-reviewed for one DAW, doesn’t mean it will work good in your music program.